Separated from their peers for months on end, many children have suffered from social isolation. Older pupils have struggled with anxiety, worried about keeping pace with online learning and whether they will be prepared for future public exams. Teenagers wile away the hours on social media where they are bombarded with doctored images fuelling a sense of inadequacy and causing a spike in harmful behaviours. The UK’s leading eating disorder charity BEAT reported an 81% increase in calls to its helpline since March and hospitalisations for such conditions have risen by a similar percentage over the same time frame.
We may not immediately think of 16-24 years olds as children but they too have suffered interruptions to education or training and endured far more time under their parents’ roofs than they might have preferred. Those who headed off to university in September found themselves locked up in halls of residence, with lecture halls empty and student parties just a pipedream. Mental health charities say that the most worrying complaint is a feeling of hopelessness: a belief that their best years are slipping away with few prospects for jobs and security on the horizon.
Of course it’s not all bad: many children will have benefitted from extended time spent with their families. Plenty will have acquired vital life skills including adaptability, resilience and organisation. Younger children will almost certainly bounce back when the school gates re-open and young adults will find that there is plenty of time for adventure when their freedom returns.
Nonetheless we must treat this issue with the attention it deserves. Over the course of January I have held virtual roundtables with mental health experts from across West Berkshire –counsellors, health professionals and addiction services – to find out how I can best help young people as your MP.
First, the importance of early interventions has been stressed time and again. Counselling services like Time to Talk are amazingly effective to the young people they reach but a spike in demand is anticipated and more counsellors cost money. Fundraising is the starting point.
Second, we need a dedicated service in schools and universities. Nadine Dorries, Minister for Mental Health has recently announced a mental health workforce to be deployed to schools and colleges when normal life returns. This is welcome but I will also be inviting schools to nominate Mental Health Ambassadors amongst their student body who can give me ideas on the big questions that matter to pupils: how do we restore their confidence, re-engage them and build their resilience.
Finally, I want young people to feel better connected. I strongly support Government plans to create networks of young apprentices employed under the Kickstart scheme within local areas. I’d like to see it enlarged to include college leavers and even local employers who can give advice and moral support as they take their first steps into the workplace at this unique moment.
Any constituent who has other ideas is welcome to drop me a line (email@example.com). I want this to be the start of a community conversation and after the year they’ve had, believe that our children deserve nothing less.